Great Grandmother Where should a fire department begin its home safety program? The most logical answer is where the need is greatest — in homes where the risk of dying in a fire is greatest. These might be identified by fire incidence of particular homes, geography, characteristics of residents (older adults, people with disabilities, low income levels, etc.), or by types of homes (e.g. manufactured homes).

Possible Sources:

911 dispatch

Photo by Mark Wolfe/FEMA News photo

Emergency response data: Use your department’s database to review home fire incidents, injuries and deaths over the past five years so you can determine areas with higher fire call incidence. This data will help justify where your program begins and where to focus efforts so it will be most effective in the shortest time – with a goal of reaching out to every home over time.

wilmington mapIf available, consider utilizing a geographical information system (GIS) or other mapping software, such as Google Maps, to plot three to five years of incident data on a map. This information will give you a visual perspective of where to initially concentrate your efforts.

Neighborhoods with recent house fires: You may not need to look back as far as five years to choose where to begin. Many departments initiate home visits in areas that have experienced recent fires. This not only addresses higher fire risk; it also capitalizes on interest and attention to the problem of fire by the people who live in that neighborhood.


Higher fire death rates are seen in states with larger percentages of people who are black, poor, smokers, have less formal education, and who live in rural areas. Many factors associated with higher fire death rates are correlated with each other. They are not mutually exclusive.4

You might use census data to target areas with households that have certain demographic characteristics that are associated with high fire risk, such as age, ethnicity, income level, employment status, home ownership, and type of home. You can use the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Fact Finder site to find population and other facts about your community. The site will provide you with a simple view of the demographics of any given community – by census tract. You can use the tool to help you understand “who” you need to reach if you intend to do anything proactive within your community about preventing safety incidents or mitigating their impacts. There is also commercial software available that identifies specific households that reflect the key areas of focus. Vision 20/20 has created model forms for data collection.

About these factors:

1. Income level: Factors may include living in homes with older electrical systems and appliances, single-parent households, the lack of working smoke alarms, poorly maintained buildings, overcrowding, lack of egress, alternative heating and less exposure to fire safety information.

2. Adults who do not have a high school education: The U.S. Census Bureau collects this data and its definition refers to people 25 or older who lack 12 years of education.

3. People who smoke: Smoking and smoking materials are among the leading cause of home fire deaths. People who smoke and their families are at a higher risk for home fire deaths.

4. Older adults aged 65 years and older are the fastest growing segment of America. Risk increases with age. Older adults aged 75 or over are nearly three times as likely to die in a fire as the general public. That risk is further increased for adults 85 and over.5

Elderly-woman-escapeSome of the reasons6 why some older adults are at greater fire risk include:

  • Living alone, which can make escaping from a fire difficult with no one to offer assistance.
  • Hearing, mobility, or vision impairments that can contribute to the inability to react quickly to prevent a fire, be alerted to a fire, or to escape a fire.
  • Medications and alcohol, which may cause drowsiness, difficulty waking, and the inability to react quickly.
  • A decreased ability to smell that gas is leaking or that something is burning.
  • Memory lapses and problems focusing, and the ease of being distracted can contribute to accidental fire (i.e. leaving cooking unattended).
  • Living in substandard housing that may lack central heating (making the use of space heaters or alternative heating necessary), and that may have old gas stoves or old electrical wiring that are more likely to malfunction.
  • A lack of secondary exits or an inability to use them (such as escape through a window).

sleeping infant5. Children five or younger are also at higher risk of dying in a fire. There are several reasons:

  • Children left alone or unattended
  • Experimenting with matches or lighters and starting a fire
  • Not understanding fire danger and what to do if fire occurs
  • Dependence on others to detect a fire and help them escape from it

6. Ethnicity and Culture: Research on fire deaths by ethnic group shows that some groups have higher risk than others. Multiple studies have found that people who are African American and who are Native American have a higher home fire death rate than all races and ethnicities combined.7

Ethnic groups or communities with higher risk are those in which:

  • there are certain cultural practices, such as frequent lit-candle use, which increase risk.
  • residents are likely to be unfamiliar with the proper use of modern appliances, such as heating and cooking equipment.
  • residents are likely to have had less exposure to fire safety education.
  • residents are unfamiliar with English and cannot understand the fire safety education that has been provided.

It is important to identify the ethnic groups or communities that you want to reach, and then tailor your program to meet their unique needs. Programs are seldom successful without including representatives from the community of focus in the planning and delivery. Be prepared with information in the language of the high-risk group.

Vietnamese translator

Greg Henshall / FEMA

NFPA and USFA have fire safety and smoke alarm tip sheets in several different languages. ProLiteracy offers home fire safety information written in plain English and translated into Spanish.

Many communities, especially immigrant communities, may be wary of people coming to their door, even firefighters. One way past this barrier is to visit the home with a firefighter or community member of the same ethnic group. See the section on Partnerships for additional methods.

With support from Vision 20/20 and the Washington State Association of Fire Marshals, ProLiteracy has created guidance and tools to use with residents who may not read well or do not yet understand English well.

too many plugs

Photo credit: U.S. Fire Administration

7. Type of Dwellings:

  • One- and Two-Family Dwellings: Although all homes are important, you may want to focus your efforts on one- and two-family homes (including manufactured homes and duplexes) as the first stage of your home safety program. A 2013 NFPA study reported that 71 percent of residential fires occurred in one- or two-family homes, including manufactured homes1.
  • Manufactured Homes: Manufactured homes built prior to 1976 Housing and Urban Development (HUD) construction standards have a much higher risk of fire deaths than those built post-1976, according to the NFPA. The latest NFPA data (2007-2011) show that the overall fire death rate per 100,000 units is roughly the same for manufactured homes as it is for single- or dual-family homes. With this in mind, concentrate your home safety program first on those manufactured homes built prior to 1976.
  • Older homes and buildings: Age does not necessarily equal a fire hazard. However, a home’s age can correlate to an increase of fire risk from system malfunctions, or deferred maintenance and upkeep. Electrical distribution or lighting equipment is a leading cause of home fires. In older homes and buildings, electrical fires are often due to outdated or faulty wiring, and wiring that was not designed to handle the electrical loads commonly used by households today.8 Old houses have fewer receptacles, which increases the risk of overloading a circuit from the misuse of extension cords. A study conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in the 1980s indicated that the frequency of fires in residential electrical systems was disproportionately high in homes more than 40 years old. Although several factors could be attributed to this high incidence of fire in the electrical systems of older homes, the aging of older electrical systems and the fact that older homes were not built to the more rigid building codes of recent times were deemed the most likely contributing factors.
  • Gwinnet County powerpointRental Properties: In most jurisdictions, the landlord is required by law to provide smoke alarm protection for residents. For this reason, some fire departments choose to exclude rental properties from their home safety visit programs. Others, such as in Gwinnett County, Georgia, are concerned that excluding rental properties will leave many of the homes at highest risk in their community unprotected. Gwinnett County Fire & Emergency Services will install alarms in one- and two-family homes where needed, even if they’re rental properties. In apartment complexes, the fire department conducts annual inspections to educate the building management and encourage code compliance with all elements of the fire and life safety codes. Bottom line: This is a local decision that should take into account local code requirements, legal considerations, and risk assessment data indicating where the need is greatest. According to the Fair Housing Act, people with disabilities have the right to modify their homes to include installing smoke alarms and alert equipment. Landlords cannot prevent the installation.9